An aged Chinese monk, despairing at never having reached enlightenment, asks permission to go to an isolated cave to make one final attempt at realization. Taking his robes, his begging bowl, and a few possessions, he heads out on foot into the mountains.
On his way he meets an old man walking down; the man is carrying a huge bundle. Something about him suggests wisdom to the troubled monk. “Say, old man,” the monk says, “do you know anything of this enlightenment I seek?” The old man drops his bundle to the ground. Seeing this, the monk is instantly enlightened. “You mean it is that simple?” he asks. “Just let go and not grasp anything!” But then he has a moment of doubt. “So now what?” he asks. And the old man, smiling silently, picks up his bundle and walks off down the path toward town.
The message is clear. Awakening does not make the ego disappear; it changes one’s relationship to it. The balance of power shifts, but there is still work to do. Rather than being driven by selfish concerns, one finds it necessary to take personal responsibility for them. In Buddhism, this engagement with the ego is described as both the path to enlightenment and the path out of it. It is traditionally explained as an Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Motivation, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. To counter the persistent and insidious influence the ego has on us—called “self-grasping” in Buddhist thought—one has to be willing to work with it on all eight levels: before awakening and after.